Heated debate about potential smoking products ban: LTV's De Facto

Take note – story published 1 year ago

Few subjects considered in the parliament gain so much attention from lobbying organizations as changes in smoking restrictions. MPs have received a pile of objections from various associations, particularly regarding the plan to ban flavors in electronic cigarettes, the De Facto broadcast of Latvian Television reported on June 11.

The proposed ban on flavorings in electronic smoking devices has been controversial in society. 10,000 signatures were collected on the public initiative portal manabalss.lv for both the permission and the prohibition of flavorings. Both sides refer to a variety of studies on the dangers of new nicotine products or, on the contrary, the possibility of switching to a less harmful addiction than cigarette smoking. The initiator of the ban, the Ministry of Health, points out that it follows the World Health Organization, which sees risks in the e-cigarettes.

Inga Birzniece, head of the Health Ministry's Health Promotion and Dependencies Prevention Division, said: “The products where different flavorings are added, such as fruit, berry, a variety of sweet tastes, contribute to the fact that young people and non-smokers start using them.”

This week, the changes to the law were completed by the Saeima Social and Labor Affairs Committee. It is only left to agree on a transitional period.

In the final reading, only technical corrections are usually made to the text of the draft law, but this time 88 proposals have been tabled. 

MPs decided that there would be one exception to the ban on flavorings: only tobacco flavor would be allowed. The head of the Committee, Inga Bērziņa (New Unity), said that the review was accompanied by a sharp counter-reaction of lobbying organizations, who had failed to significantly influence the draft law: “I have also been told by colleagues and doctors at the Ministry of Health that there has also been a personal appeal against them on various social networks and media. Of course, there is no evidence. But in any case, a fight was there.”

A year ago, the head of the Employers' Confederation, Līga Meņģelsone, asked the Saeima not to ban flavorings. Half a year later she herself became Minister of Health. In her position, Meņģelsone has not encouraged the ban to be relaxed. Such proposals, however, were made by her political force United List. The faction's chief executive, Edgars Tavars, called for a third reading to rule that the government should make a list of which flavors in electronic cigarettes are banned, and allow flavorings to be marketed in specialized stores.

Very similar proposals had been sent to the Saeima by the No-Tobacco Products Association, created by Latvia's largest electronic cigarette company, “Pro Vape”, which makes the so-called 'salts'.

The Pro Vape business has grown rapidly in recent years. Turnover climbed almost four times in 2021 to nearly €40 million, while profit was 10 million. Financial figures for 2022 are not yet available, but the amount of taxes paid has increased twice in 2022, indicating that the business has continued to grow rapidly.

The new lobbying law obliges Members to indicate who the authors of the proposals are, but neither Tavars nor anyone else has indicated it. Tavars denies that he would have infringed anything.

Closer or more distant links with lobbyists for nicotine products can be found in several parties. For example, Emīls Ozoliņš, a member of the board of the No-Tobacco Products Association, is a member of the Progressives. Edmunds Cepurītis, the party's deputy, urged the commission not to ban flavors entirely, but to allow menthol and tobacco flavors. The proposal is designed to make the ban more gradual. Cepurītis denies that such an idea came from the party member Ozoliņš.

An identical proposal for permitting the flavors of tobacco and menthol was submitted to the third reading by Ramona Petraviča of Latvia First (LPV).

This party can also find links with the No-Tobacco Products Association – until March 2022 it was headed by Karīna Plaude, who stood in parliamentary elections from the LPV list, while the largest shareholder of Pro Vape, Mārtiņš Jamonts, has committed a thousand euros to the party. Jamonts has also donated to the National Alliance — €2,500 shortly before 14th Parliamentary elections. The party's leader, Raivis Dzintars, said that the businessman had sought no impact with the donation.

On the other hand, Armands Krauze, Member of the Union of Greens and Farmers, who also called for tobacco and menthol flavors to be permitted, said he has sought a balance between competing smoking products: “Right now, I see that the producers of traditional cigarettes are fighting against these new smoking products that come in here. The fight is simply about competition.”

65 medical organizations have urged the Saeima to ban flavorings. It is also highlighted in particular by Inga Bērziņa, Head of the Saeima Social and Labor Affairs Committee, who points out that alarming signals have also been received from schools where new smoking products have become very popular.

The Ministry of Health proposed that the ban on flavors and nicotine chews should enter into force on December 1, 2024, but, on a recommendation from the Ministry of Finance, the Members agreed conceptually to extend the deadline for a further half-year period. The Ministry of Finance indicated that the withdrawal of excisable goods from the market is a complicated process because the excise stamp must be removed from each unit of packaging and submitted to the State Revenue Service. The vote in the committee is scheduled for this week.

The Finance Ministry has also previously expressed concerns that the new restrictions on flavorings will reduce the state budget revenue by €10 million.

There are also concerns that e-cigarettes will flow from abroad, which will be difficult for authorities to control. It does not deter the Ministry of Health from the ban, and it intends to address the European Commission as a solution to encourage the introduction of a ban on flavorings at the European Union level.

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